Tuesday, December 31, 2019

Two That Stuck: #2019 #History

Disclaimer: I read, and I enjoy it, and I read for many different reasons. I have opinions about books, which I might share in person but will likely not reduce to stars on any of the popular platforms.

From time to time, I share books. I don't share everything, which means I quite enjoy some books but don't share them here.

I wrote a little more about reading, and books, earlier this month. Which includes links to other books I've written about.

THAT SAID ... I may write more about books in 2020.

Today, I'm saying something about two books that have stuck with me throughout 2019. They are The Cooking Gene and All Among the Barley.

One afternoon when I was old enough to think of being with my parents as "visiting" them, but not late enough in the 1990s that visits were all about my mother's Alzheimer's, a mealtime conversation turned to family history. (We Agnews were a barrel o' laughs.)

While we lingered at the table, my father pulled out a piece of paper (8.5 X 11, with printing only on ONE side so still perfectly useful) and a blue ballpoint pen from the stash (multiple colours plus one of those four-colours-in-one) in his pocket protector (BARREL o' laughs, Agnews).

And, just like that, he drew a history of our Faris connection (through his mother) back to "the immigrant." Who came from Scotland, I think, and had been a baker, and had been named William, and came in about 1781. Unless I've mixed up a few branches of the family, which is entirely possible.

OK sure he was a historian, and a social historian so interested in families and institutions of daily life. But anyone who cared to could probably confirm and correct all of that information. Records exist. And it's entirely possible that they're online.

It's miraculous to have that much family history available to you, a fact I didn't appreciate AT ALL until I read The Cooking Gene, by Michael W. Twitty. Like my father, Mr. Twitty is also a historian--of food and culture--and studies African American history through the movement of people and food. (Foodways: a wonderful word.)

I shudder at the ads for DNA testing "to determine your ancestry," because the tests are limited, and "blood" doesn't give license to co-opting a cultural artifact or practice. I mean, sure: play bagpipes and eat pasta if you want. You don't have to be Scots or Italian to do that. Just know that having ancestors from anywhere in the UK or Europe doesn't make your pasta-eating or bagpipe-playing somehow more authentic.

And for sure, Indigenous peoples are understandably leery of the limits and uses of DNA testing, as noted in a book by expert Kim TallBear.

But DNA testing can play a different role for African-Americans. As their ancestors were enslaved in Africa and brought to North America, their cultural history was lost. Through DNA testing, people like Mr. Twitty can learn some of the information my father had at the tip of his ballpoint pen.

It's not easy to interpret DNA results. Although much of The Cooking Gene is ABOUT genetics, it's also not ALL about genetics. And what he learns may be refined as more people are tested (making databases bigger and inferences more detailed and accurate).

As he says (p. 131), "Twenty years ago, someone like me couldn't even have dreamed of knowing what we know now, and I hope to be able to correct what I know over and over as the details get refined. I have no desire to be perfectly right. I just love the journey."

He's provided many wonderful resources at his blog, Afroculinaria. I strongly encourage you to read the book, at minimum.  He's also on Twitter @koshersoul and Instagram @thecookinggene.

My father's been on my mind quite a bit this past year for a variety of reasons. My book, of course. The state of the American presidency. And in general, because he would take such a dim view of our cultural amnesia. He'd probably call it what it is, deliberate ignorance.

Which brings me to the other book ABOUT but not ALL about something: All Among the Barley, by Melissa Harrison, which is about nature, and growing up, and history, and living somewhere vs. visiting. All of which combine to make it an irresistible read (which I wrote about here, in another context).

Two elements of the story stay with me. First, it's set in the 1930s--the autumn of 1933, to be exact. The Great War is over, but bad stuff is happening in Europe--and as Edie, the protagonist learns, in England, right there at home.

In the summer of 1933, my father was 16 and was on his way to (or just finished) serving as Valedictorian of his high school class. By the end of the decade, he was in the history PhD program at Harvard (where he met my mother, a mathematics PhD student) (at church) (of course). A pacifist and cautious thinker by nature, he was exactly of the age to serve in the military. I have a vague memory of hearing him tell about failing his PhD oral exams in the afternoon of December 7, 1941. He did serve in the Navy in Hawaii. And he would be appalled at the events occurring in North America and UK/Europe today.

The other part of All Among the Barley I'm dwelling on serves as a cautionary tale to me. The "stranger who comes to town" and sets off much of the plot of the book, Constance FitzAllen (one of the best names ever), is in the area to learn traditional ways of farming. But she's less interested in what farmers actually do and more interested in her romantic notions of what they should do because at one point, they did.

Good lesson. As I find my way here, a place I have loved with child's eyes for a long time, I must remember that I'm no longer a child. When my grandfather built our camp 96 years ago, he used the tools available. My grandparents and my parents didn't live in black-and-white or sepia, and I shouldn't try to duplicate their world in my own, different time.

Except, sigh, when it's not so different.

Besides writing novels, Melissa also writes about nature for various publications in the UK.

Here's a recent column she wrote for Caught by the River. As usual, she writes thoughtfully about what's changed for her in the past twelve months, in relation to travel and our global climate castrophe. She's honest about a travel plan she'd do differently. And she concludes, "I want to believe in the transformation I'm seeing around me. I have to hope it'll be enough."

We should all hope so. She's also on Twitter @M_Z_Harrison and a good addition to anyone's stream.

These two books challenge their readers, respectfully, and reward the investment of time and thought a conscientious reader gives them.

A few other books from 2019 will appear here in the coming months, and I have every confidence that 2020 will bring more. Good reading to you.